Just as Matt Berrena hit the beach leading an assault, he turned around to bad news.
He was attacking solo.
“Once I touched the ground, I looked over my shoulder, and all I saw was the belly of the helicopter flying away,” he recalled.
With it went the rest of the force. As squad leader, Berrena had jumped first on the special mission to rescue downed helicopter crew members during the invasion of Grenada island in 1983.
But before anybody could follow, the two Black Hawks started taking ground fire and veered off.
Just then, a pair of Navy jets began strafing the beach ahead in support. Berrena hugged the sand as the jets passed overhead so low he saw a pilot give him a thumbs up salute.
It was just another day at the office during a distinguished career.
Berrena, 52, of Pennsylvania Furnace, spent 22 years as an elite Army Ranger before retiring as a sergeant major in 2001. He’s now in even more select company. This summer, he was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Ga., joining 336 other members chosen from different eras for their outstanding service.
“The members of the Ranger Hall of Fame Selection Board take particular care to ensure that only the most extraordinary Rangers are inducted, a difficult mission given the high caliber of all nominees,” the Hall of Fame website states.
After Grenada, Berrena jumped into Panama in 1989, fought in Operation Desert Storm against Iraqi forces in 1991 and later that year took part as a rifle platoon leader in Operation Iris Gold along the border between Kuwait and Iraq.
“By serving in all Ranger units except 2nd Ranger Battalion, and participating in four combat operations, SGM (Ret.) Berrena is the icon of a Ranger that led the way,” Berrena’s Hall of Fame citation reads.
His fellow inductees include Frank Merrill, who led Merrill’s Marauders, a World War II special operations jungle warfare unit famous for fighting far behind Japanese lines.
Altoona native Jack Kuhn, who scaled the Point du Hoc cliffs on D-Day and destroyed coastal guns threatening the Normandy landing forces, also is in the hall. So are retired Gen. Colin Powell and 22 Medal of Honor recipients.
When the Rangers notified Berrena of his selection, he almost decided to stay home.
“Just because of the caliber of the people who are in there,” Berrena said. “I didn’t think I felt I belonged.”
His wife, Marcia, thought otherwise.
“She talked me into it. She said, ‘You have to do it for the kids,’ ” said Berrena, who has two sons, ages 14 and 12.
“She was right. I really did it for her and the kids.”
At Fort Benning, Berrena showed his family his old stomping ground, including the 75th Regiment headquarters and the celebrated Ranger Memorial, a granite tribute to the history of the Rangers going back to the Revolutionary War.
Matthew Jr. and Luke Anthony got to see their father’s name engraved on a section of the wall around the monument — forever marking him a Hall of Fame Ranger.
“It’s humbling,” Berrena said. “It’s really humbling to think I was nominated and the board actually said, ‘Yes, you’re deserving.’ I guess I did something right.”
His father, Lou Berrena, agrees, and he should know. As an 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper, he jumped into southern France in 1944 and led a 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment mortar section in the Battle of the Bulge.
“I am so proud,” Lou Berrena said.
His son followed in his footsteps in 1979. But fixing vehicles, Matt Berrena’s job after basic training, wasn’t what he expected.
“I was a little disillusioned, and I thought there had to be something better out there,” he said.
A drill sergeant suggested an option. The Rangers, he said, were always hiring.
That sounded good to Berrena. He changed his enlistment contract, made it through airborne training at Fort Benning and received his jump wings in 1980.
“I just grew up there,” he said.
Starting out in Savannah, Ga., with the 1st Battalion, he took his first steps toward falling out of a C-130 Hercules over Panama City’s airport.
A little after midnight, he jumped at the standard 500 feet for a combat operation — glad to be rid of a miserable 19-hour flight while wearing more than 200 pounds of parachute and gear, unhappy about the green tracers rising from below.
His assignment for Operation Just Cause, the invasion to oust Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega, was clear: Set up a roadblock to a military airfield beside the civilian airport.
Berrena’s platoon set up barricades and signs in Spanish. At one point during the night, a sedan came flying down the road, lights off as it dodged a first obstacle. Rangers fired warning shots and it halted, turned around and drove off.
The next morning, intelligence reports indicated Noriega was probably trying to flee in the car.
“That would have been cute,” Berrena said. “It would have ended it, right there.”
Everything almost ended for him on a Grenada beach.
After the strafing, Berrena took cover. Soon, the two circling Black Hawks at sea returned and landed. When Berrena ran out of the jungle toward one, bullets cracked past him — from a jittery door gunner who mistook him for an enemy soldier.
The mission, ultimately unsuccessful, resumed. At the end, under fire, the squad hightailed it back to the waiting helicopters and dived in, the wheels lifting before everyone settled.
Berrena lay half outside as someone held on to his pants. His platoon leader dangled from the cabin, fingers gripping the floor.
“He was hanging like a flag out there,” Berrena said, but this Ranger wasn’t going airborne that day.
“I had him by the sleeve.”
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter@CRosenblumNews.